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FIVE LIEUTENANTS: THE HEARTBREAKING STORY OF FIVE HARVARD MEN WHO LED AMERICA TO VICTORY IN WORLD WAR 1 (November, 2012, St. Martin's)
Ninety-five-and-a-half years ago the campus of Harvard University was abuzz; the United States had declared war on Germany and there was a rush to get into it. Final exams were moved up to accommodate those eager to enlist, and see what had been going on Over There for almost three years, where a snaking line of trenches split France in half, where French and British and German faced each other just yards away across an impenetrable No Man's Land pocked with the detritus of earlier failed assaults -- cast-away rifles, rusting wires, dead bodies bleaching in gas-fouled pools of water at the bottom of deep shell holes, helmets and bits of uniform from all sides.
It's difficult today to imagine why anyone would rush to sign on for a visit to such a scene, but in the spring of 1917 such places held an allure for many young American men. Some signed on with the army out of a lust for adventure, some out of sheer patriotism, some because there was a shared sense that America had been wronged, some because it would be the ultimate test -- and others because in the Great War they saw an opportunity to do their small part in not just saving society but in recasting it, wiping away the stain of inequality and forging a new world in which democracy-loving peoples would work together for the common good.
Five Lieutenants tells the story of five of these idealistic young men, Harvard-educated all, who enlisted in officers' training camps, were sent to France, and fought in the 1918 battles at Cantigny and/or Soissons. The book is an outgrowth of and natural bookend to my first book The Remains of Company
D: A Story of the Great War (see below), and in fact four of the five lieutenants had small cameos in Remains.
In their stories I saw the opportunity to define the spirit of the American soldier who went Over There and to what seemed almost-certain death. I sought to answer, as well, several questions. What drew these young, educated men into such a maelstrom? How did they breach the cultural chasm that spread between their own privileged background and education and the rough and not nearly as educated doughboys who served under them? Did their backgrounds and education make them natural leaders, as the army and society supposed, or was that a false conceit?
Five Lieutenants answers those questions, and in addition paints what I hope is one of the most intimate and moving portraits of young men at war that has ever been produced. Read it and through their eyes you'll see and smell the war, experience their hardships and take pleasure in their small joys, and lead men over the top at Cantigny and endure what they endured at that small French village at the end of May, 1918. It's a unique and human story that like Remains needed telling, and I'm glad to have had the privilege of doing that for Lts. Richard Newhall, George Haydock, William O.P. Morgan, Alexander McKinlock, and George B. Redwood.
THE REMAINS OF COMPANY D: A STORY OF THE GREAT WAR (2009, St. Martin's)
He loved cars, hated dogs, and was middling about kids. He was something of a pool shark, even well into his eighties spry enough to lay himself out across the green velvet of his table in the basement and pocket the eight ball with a nifty carom. He was a painter by trade, a curmudgeon by choice, a Swedish immigrant by happenstance, and a poor violin player by lack of talent.
And, oh, yes - he was shot in France as he raced across a field way back in 1918, and very nearly died.
All of the above tell you something about my grandfather, the simply named John Nelson, but it was that last bit that seized my attention from an early age, when I became smitten with all things military, and was astounded to learn that the old man I called Grandpa Nelson had a war story of his own.
And the story was simple as well: At some point, and for some reason, my grandfather had been shot in the left side by a machine gun bullet, laid out on the field overnight, and then was "saved" by two exotic stretcher-bearers from some exotic French Colonial unit.
I dreamed about this; I appropriated the story for retelling during furious backyard battles that went on summer after summer in the Chicago suburb in which I was raised (yes, I'm that old).
And when I was old enough, when I had children of my own and a better sense of the context surrounding John Nelson's near-death experience, I went looking for what else I could find of his story, seized myself by a need to understand what he had been doing in the Army, and in that field.
He was limited in words, Old School all the way, and not one whose memory could be prodded into a kindly retelling of The Good Old Days. So it wasn't until after he died in 1993, at the age of 101, that I sought out his story, my initial poking into the ashes of his life producing some medical records that indicated he had suffered much more from that wound than he ever let on, and as well a muster roll for the unit in which he served - Company D, 28th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 1st Division.
I initially hoped simply that by researching the names on that roll - Captain Soren C. Sorensen, Private Rollin Livick, Sergeant Willard S. Storms - I might be able to tell the story of the circumstances that had left him face-down and bleeding into the soil of France.
But with some early good luck in obtaining family records and other material, I realized for the first time that John Nelson's story had not occurred in a vacuum, that every name on that roll had his own story, and that - it may sound sappy, but I mean this - perhaps I had been chosen to tell the cumulative tale of Company D in the Great War.
Slowly, over years of teeth-pulling and searching for needles in haystacks, the story did emerge, or as much of it as I could find. And it was an important story, I thought and still think, a story of unheralded sacrifice and tragedy and glory and heroism by otherwise ordinary young men. And it's a story we should all know.
It's a story of the war's fallen, who were rolled into shell holes or dragged their mortally wounded bodies off to die alone in a clump of bushes, and it's a story of the war's survivors, who -- most battered physically, if not emotionally - came home singly to pick up their lives as best they could, while the nation swept the war under the rug and moved on, with an almost audible sigh and a whispered, "What was that all about?"
The sacrifices of the dead and living would be overshadowed before too long by the sacrifices and heroism of The Greatest Generation, while these old doughboys would simply fade away in the last half of the 20th Century, most of their individual stories and experiences ignored in the books that did try to explain America's short-lived role in the murderous First World War, but which resorted to a collective and unnamed "they" in the retelling.
And so, beginning with the small tale of the woebegone John Nelson, I saw it as my privilege and honor to smoke out the stories within the story of Company D of the 28th Infantry Regiment, and by extension the individual stories of every doughboy who inhaled gas or died anonymously in the trenches at Cantigny, or the scarred landscape of the Argonne, or while chasing after his life on the wide and open fields of Soissons.
Old soldiers may fade away, but their stories need not. The Remains of Company D was written for those who died and are now forgotten, and for all of the old soldiers who somehow lived through that hell on the Western Front - first and foremost, my grandfather.